Phoenix Invitational

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Retired baller Earl Joseph “J. R.” Smith III was honored by North Carolina A&T as its 2021-22 Academic Athlete of the Year. The 36-year-old entered the league as a prep-to-pro athlete in 2004 and retired from professional play two years ago. But the 2x NBA champ said a conversation with Ray Allen last summer inspired him to enroll in college seriously, and Smith’s dedication to his schoolwork landed him a 4.0 GPA in his first semester.

“I can’t even describe the feeling,” Smith said this past December, after acing all his Fall 2021 classes. He also joined the Aggies’ golf team, which landed him a landmark NIL deal with Lululemon. “I ain’t even gon’ lie to you, a lot of hard work went into that sh*t… Especially when you don’t think you can do it,” the college frosh added. And Smith did this all while maintaining his perfect GPA through the remainder of the academic season, too.

Many people, basketball fans or not, remember Smith being on the wrong end of a botched play during the 2018 NBA Finals. The iconic moment, which involved his friend and former teammate LeBron James, has since become a popularly circulated meme. But J.R. has come a long way since that incident, and he’s especially received public support from a number of current NBA players, including Lou “Lemon Pepper” Williams and James himself.

Smith has overcome some other major hurdles in his life before arriving at the place he is today. In February, he was a guest on the IAMATHLETE podcast. He spoke with Brandon Marshall, D.J. Williams, and Antoine Walker about his infamous Finals gaffe and a need for Black athletes and businesspersons to pour their resources back into the Black community. One major turning point in Smith’s “path to enlightenment” actually happened in 2007, during his sophomore season in the NBA.

“Two years into the league, [I had a] car accident, [and I] go to jail,” he shared in his interview. Smith’s friend, 21-year-old Andre Bell, was killed as a result. “The friends, the relationships that I built during this time [of] playing AAU ball, high school ball, in the league now, [with] coaches, agents, all of that? Two coaches came to see me. One player called me.”

Tim Grgurich, Jamal Mosley, and Kenyon Martin are the only people who reached out to Smith in those dark moments. But many other people whom he helped and rolled with on his way to the top abandoned him. “My boys, [the] people who when you see me on TV [that] I’m fightin’ for?… I ain’t gonna lie, it’s still f*cks with me to this day,” he said. “That’s why when it comes to sh*t like that, I don’t get over it.”